Wanted: An Externally Oriented Japan


Under Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, Japan is charting a more confident course, although one more troubling to some of its neighbors. We spoke with veteran international relations specialist Kent Calder about recent developments and the prospects for Japan’s public diplomacy.

Kent Calder

Director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies and director of the Japan Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. Since earning his PhD in government at Harvard University, has taught at Princeton University and served as Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, among other posts. Was also a special advisor to the US ambassador to Japan. His recent publications include Pacific Alliance: Reviving U.S.-Japan Relations (2009), The New Continentalism: Energy and Twenty-First Century Eurasian Geopolitics (2012), and Asia in Washington: Exploring the Penumbra of Transnational Power (2014).

Hopes for a Period of Political Stability

INTERVIEWER  Japan just had its House of Councillors election, and the Liberal Democratic Party has a solid majority in both houses now, meaning the end of the “divided diet” phase. You were here for the election; how do you view it?

KENT CALDER  Well, I thought that the Japan Restoration Party did a little less well than I had expected—certainly much less well than was anticipated last fall. That will have a significant bearing on policy going forward. The pressures for Prime Minister Abe to move on issues like constitutional revision will be lower, and it will be easier for him to focus on the economy.

I think that generally, opinion in Japan—certainly business opinion—and broadly, in most countries overseas, is looking for the revival of the Japanese economy. Given some of the problems in Europe, the softness of the Chinese economy, and the fact that the United States is coming out of its third round of quantitative easing, the world should applaud vigorous Japanese economic growth. While “Abenomics” is a risky course, it seems to offer better prospects than any alternative I can see right now.

INTERVIEWER  Do you ascribe the JRP’s poor performance to the implosion that Hashimoto had?

CALDER  Yes, his implosion was part of it. I also think that many people in Japan have begun to say that they may want a stronger Japan, one that’s more respected around the world, but they question whether the more truculent approach represented by the alignment of Hashimoto Tōru and Ishihara Shintarō produces that result.

INTERVIEWER  On the one hand, there’s hope that firm LDP control of both houses is going to lead to better economic performance. But there are also worries—particularly in East Asia, but also in America to some extent—about other aspects of Abe’s policies, particularly foreign policy and security. Is there concern about a lurch to the right?

CALDER  I think there is, but a lot of this comes from the statements and policies of his first [2007–8] term—his statements on the comfort women, and so on—more so than the current term. He’s learned a lot; he’s become more careful. I think his heart is oriented toward changing Japan, toward reassertion of some of the traditional values. But his brain sees that regional relations and economic recovery force him in a different direction.

I think certainly the world, including the United States, needs to work with the Abe administration. It’s likely that it will be in power for three years. I do see some disjuncture with the key priorities of the Obama administration. That isn’t to say that it can’t be bridged. Both sides are likely to have to work together for the next three years, and the international situation is going to need Japanese growth. There are also major security issues, with the rise of China and other changes in the world. There’s a close coincidence of interests and policies between Japan and the United States under Obama and Abe in areas like cyber security and intellectual property.

In some other areas, this coincidence isn’t there. It doesn’t seem that the Abe administration is placing priority on issues like the environment, and possibly energy, even though Japan has enduring strength in those areas. But those are priorities of the Obama administration.

INTERVIEWER  In energy, of course, you have 3/11 knocking nuclear power out of the picture. Abe is committed to getting the nuclear plants back online and making that a part of Japan’s new growth. Does energy policy need to be a core of the relationship going forward?

CALDER  Well, the easiest way to get Japan and America on the same page would be with things like alternative energy, renewable energy. That said, the revival of the nuclear plants, after thorough security checks, is likely, and from a macroeconomic point of view would be positive for Japan. We don’t want to see the hollowing out of the Japanese economy. But many people in the United States certainly want to see Japan do this cautiously.

Closing the Attention Gap

INTERVIEWER  There’s considerable concern in Japan about the “attention gap”—the sense that Japanese attention on what’s happening in the United States far outstrips the attention coming the other direction.

CALDER  I don’t think Japan has priority in the US agenda-setting process. On a whole range of issues, Japan’s position has not been very clearly presented. Also, the contributions of Japan to the global political economy, or to stability, or ways that it’s supported the United Nations or US forces abroad—I don’t think these things are as broadly known as they should be. That said, I think the coming of an ambassador who’s a part of American history—Caroline Kennedy, if indeed she is formally named—could have a large, potentially positive impact here.

INTERVIEWER  Last year you published The New Continentalism, in which you look at Eurasian geopolitics and at energy issues in particular. Why the focus on Eurasia at this point?

CALDER  The changes that have occurred within Eurasia have been quiet changes, but they have historic implications for the future for Japan and the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s modernizations, and India’s reforms have together produced a new dynamic of cross-continental growth. This has pulled Korea more strongly to the continent than would otherwise have been the case. The continent is becoming much more cohesive, politically and economically, and I think that’s something Japan and the United States have to deal with.

Indirectly, this may have intensified some of the tension that we see across the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. It also has potential importance for Japan’s future—in terms of energy from the Middle East, for example. One part of the dynamic of continentalism, of course, is that Northeast Asia and the Middle East are becoming closer and closer economically. Today, two-thirds of the Middle East’s oil goes to Asia. That’ll be three-quarters within a decade. The United States is becoming more autonomous with its shale gas, but the Asia–Middle East relationship is deepening, and the South China Sea is right in the middle of that.

Abe has responded in his way to this with his Russian diplomacy and his trips to the Middle East and Southeast Asia this spring. The ASEAN region is also terribly important for Japan, strategically. I think one major implication of both continentalism and the rise of China is the increasing importance of relations with Southeast Asia. It’s also an area where the “history problems” are less salient, which no doubt makes life easier for the Abe administration. Southeast Asia is also an area in which the Obama administration has a deep interest, and in terms of creating a US-Japan “community of interests,” it’s probably the region of the world where that’s the easiest, politically speaking, for both countries.

A Japan Reaching Out to the World

INTERVIEWER  You mention the East China Sea and the South China Sea—two areas with a number of potential flashpoints. China, of course, is the actor to watch in connection with all of this. What sort of a role do you see for the Japan-US alliance with respect to China?

CALDER  For a long time, I thought that the US-Japan-China concept eroded the US-Japan relationship, and hence was not an ideal approach. Now, though, I do think there’s value in US-Japan-China dialogue on many questions. Energy and the environment are two; there are also some soft human security questions, and even some that verge on security, like piracy.

There’s danger in a G2 arrangement. America needs a constructive, stable relationship with China, of course. But if that’s achieved at the cost of US-Japan ties, it’s dangerous for the region in the long run. Certainly security issues should be addressed in the US-Japan framework. There’s a different, important role for US-Japan-China dialogue on many issues where there are collective interests, such as energy, the environment, and piracy.

INTERVIEWER  Japan is said to have turned inward, to have gone quiet on the international stage over the past twenty years. With Abe, do you think there are signs that it’s stepping back onto the stage again?

CALDER  I think so. It’s one of the positive dimensions of this administration. If Japan continues opening up in a stable manner, the appreciation by other countries of its importance is going to rise. One of the downsides of getting a new prime minister every year since 2006 has been that other countries don’t feel they need to deal seriously with the existing government. Even the tensions with China and Korea are partly related to that. Those countries saw that they could beat on the government in power, satisfying their domestic interests, but there was no long-term foreign policy cost to it. That’s changing, and I think it’s a good thing.

Abe’s reaching out to the continent is important. As an increasingly interactive region, with major countries like Russia, China, and India, this is going to be an important part of the world. Of course, it’s also important to understand the concerns of other countries about history; about radical changes in Japanese foreign policy and political-military affairs.

INTERVIEWER  The election gave the ruling coalition a majority in the upper house, but the parties in favor of amending the Constitution don’t have the two-thirds majority that they need to do so. Is this a good thing?

CALDER  Well, as Prime Minister Abe said himself on the evening of the election, some time for reflection and understanding is needed. I think that the structural situation that you point to—namely, that they don’t have a large enough majority—is a good thing in that sense. I don’t believe that the majority of the Japanese people at this point support constitutional revision, so a process of dialogue and education is a positive thing. Of course, Japan needs to understand Asia, but at the same time, I hope very much that Asia—in particular, China and Korea—will take a moderate stance and not stimulate Japan at a time like this, because there are fateful decisions being made on the future of security policy and the Constitution.

Building a PR Presence on the Ground

INTERVIEWER  With respect to the softer aspects of outreach, Japan is spending more these days on public-relations projects, such as its “Cool Japan” support for culture creators.

CALDER  It’s certainly a positive thing for Japan to appeal to younger people. No doubt in the longer term that will be important. Coming from Washington, though, the more immediate issue I see is insufficient understanding of where Japan is right now, in terms of its policies and the way it looks at the future. There are still lingering remnants of things that happened in the first Abe administration that are misperceived. His second administration has a different stance in some ways, which isn’t adequately understood.

I think the immediate priority for Japanese diplomacy and policy right now is to foster an understanding that Japan is back, that it’s contributing to the global economy in very constructive ways. In the field of development, for example, with the TICAD conferences, Japan is playing an important role in relations with Africa, something that meshes with the interests of the Obama administration. I don’t think Japan’s Africa policies and contributions are understood well enough. These areas are a higher priority for Japan right now.

INTERVIEWER  Do you think that Japan is unskilled at this sort of public diplomacy, or at relating to other cultures?

CALDER  I’m actually doing a comparative study on this right now. I feel that Japan is internally oriented, even in some of its external diplomacy. There’s real value in having an on-the-ground presence in key countries—not only in the United States, but in Southeast Asia, as just one area that I would stress. Interaction with the outside world through other foreigners, as well as through articulate Japanese representatives, is key, as is wider use of social media and the Internet.

Certainly, there have been some very articulate Japanese ambassadors, in Washington in particular. But it’s tremendously important to have spokespeople, a presence on the ground, in a range of institutions—in Washington and elsewhere, especially on the nongovernmental side—to present Japan’s views, or views that show an understanding of Japan.

(Based on a July 23, 2013, interview. Interviewer Peter Durfee is a director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Photographs by Kodera Kei.)

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